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by S.M. Dubnow

A Project Gutenberg EBook


With all their moderate and cautious phraseology, the conclusions of the Pahlen Commission, whose members, as hide-bound conservatives, were forced to reckon with the anti-Semitic trend of the governing circles, implied an annihilating criticism of the repressive policy of that very Government by which the Commission had been appointed. From the loins of Russian officialdom issued the enemy who opposed it in its manner of dealing with the Jewish question.

It must be added, however, that the opinions voiced by the Commission in its memorandum were by no means shared by its entire membership. For while the majority of the Commission were in favor of gradual reforms, the minority advocated the continuation of the old repressive policy. Owing to these internal disagreements, the Commission was slow in submitting its conclusions to the Government. One more attempt was made to procrastinate the matter. At the end of 1888 the Commission invited a group of Jewish "experts," being desirous, as it were, to listen to the last words of the prisoner at the bar. The choice fell upon the same Jewish notables of St. Petersburg, who had displayed so little courage at the Jewish conference of 1882. [1] The cross-examination of these Jewish representatives turned on the question of the internal Jewish organization, the existence of a secret Kahal, the purposes of the "basket tax," [2] and so on. Needless to say the replies were given in an apologetic spirit. The Jewish "experts" renounced the idea of a self-governing communal Jewish organization, and pleaded merely for a limited communal autonomy under the strict supervision of the Government. True, a few of the questions referred besides to the legal position of the Jews, but this was done more as a matter of form. Everybody knew that the opinion of the majority of the Commission, favoring "cautious and gradual" reforms, did not have the same prospects of success as the views of the anti-Semitic minority which advocated the continuance of the old-time repressive policy.

[Footnote 1: See p. 304 et seq. In addition to those mentioned, M. Margolis was invited as an expert.]

[Footnote 2: See above, p. 61, n. 1.]

Soon the worst apprehensions proved to be true. Count Tolstoi, the reactionary Minister of the Interior, blocked the further progress of the plans formulated by the Pahlen Commission which should have been submitted in due course to the Council of State. There were persistent rumors to the effect that Alexander III., being decidedly in favor of continuing the policy of oppression towards the Jews, had "attached himself to the opinion of the minority" of the Pahlen Commission. According to another version, the question was actually brought up before the Council of State, and there, too, the anti-Semites proved to be in the minority, but the Tzar threw the weight of his opinion on their side. The project of the Commission, being out of harmony with the current Government policies, was disposed of at some secret session of leading dignitaries. The labor of five years was buried in the official archives.

As for the Jews themselves, they were at no time deceived about the effects that were likely to attend the work of the High Commission. They clearly understood that, if the Government had been genuinely desirous of "revising" the system of Jewish disabilities, it would have stopped, for a time at least, to manufacture new legislative whips and scorpions. The dark polar night of Russian reaction reigned supreme. There seemed to be no end to these orgies of the Russian night owls, the Pobyedonostzevs and Tolstois, who were anxious to resuscitate the savagery of ancient Muscovy, and who kept the people in the grip of ignorance, drunkenness, and political barbarism. Every one in Russia kept his peace and held his breath. The progressive elements of the Empire were held down tightly by the lid of reaction. The press groaned under the yoke of a ferocious censorship. The mystic doctrine of non-resistance preached by Leo Tolstoi was attuned to the mood prevailing among educated Russians, for, in the words of the Russian poet, "their hearts, subdued by storms, were filled with silence and lassitude."

In Jewish life, too, silence reigned supreme. The sharp pangs of the first pogrom year were now dulled, and only suppressed moans echoed the uninterrupted "silent pogrom" of oppression. These were years of which the Jewish poet, Simon Frug, could sing:

        Round about all is silent and cheerless,         Like a lonesome and desert-like plain.         If but one were courageous and fearless         And would cry out aloud in his pain!         Neither storm-wind nor starshine by night,         And the days neither cloudy nor bright:         O my people, how sad is thy state,         How gray and how cheerless thy fate!

But in this silence the national idea was slowly maturing and gaining in depth and in strength. The time had not yet arrived for clearly marked tendencies or well-defined systems of thought. But the temper of the intellectual classes of Russian Jewry was a clear indication that they were at the cross-roads. The "titled" _inteligenzia_, reared in the Russian schools, who had drifted away from Judaism, was now joined by that other _intelligenzia_, the product of heder and yeshibah, who had acquired European culture through the medium of neo-Hebraic literature, and was in closer contact with the masses of the Jewish people.

True, the Jewish periodical press in the Russian language, which had arisen towards the end of the seventies, had lost in quantity. The _Razvyet_ had ceased to appear in 1883, and the _Russki Yevrey_ in 1884. The only press organ to remain on the battlefield was the militant _Voskhod_, which was the center for the publicistic, scientific, and poetic endeavors of the advanced intellectuals of that period. But the loss of the Russian branch of Jewish literature was made up by the growth of the Hebrew press. The old Hebrew organs _ha-Melitz_ and _ha-Tzefirah_ took on a new lease of life, and grew from weeklies into dailies. Voluminous annuals with rightful claims to scientific and literary importance, such as the _ha-Asif_ ("The Harvest") and _Keneset Israel_ ("The Community of Israel") in Warsaw, and other similar publications, began to make their appearance in Russia. New literary forces began to rise from the ground, though only to attain their full bloom during the following years. Taken as a whole, the ninth decade of the nineteenth century may well be designated as a period of transition from the older Haskalah movement to the more modern national revival.

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